Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Zombie Survival - How The World Ends, In Two Hours Or Less

Have you ever noticed what life has become in the digital age, where many of us don't know our neighbors' names, and the use of text messaging is valued above actual conversation? Much of human interaction is now done through a machine interface, taking away a bit of humanity each time your crackberries and IPhones chime notifying you that you've got a new message. That's the reason I not-so-secretly pray for the Zombie Apocalypse. I mean, if we're trying to create more and more walls of separation between ourselves, why not just cut out the middleman and shack up in a bunker waiting for the end to come?

Anyhow, this cool little game is not the usual "run around a town and hunt the zombies" situation that you've come to expect. No, this is totally different than anything else I've ever seen. This game is about loading your house full of provisions, weapons, and warm bodies in an attempt to stave off the Zombie Horde long enough to watch your neighbors (you know, the ones whose dog always shit on your lawn and they never once cleaned it up?) die a horrible, terrifying, painful death. In a word, "righteous!" This game does a tremendous job in simulating what a real zombie invasion would be like if you were a prepared, motivated survivalist that happened to stock up on guns and butter before the end came.

During the game, you'll first stock your house up with common-sense supplies that will be required to hold out against the swarms of the living dead, and once your houses are loaded up, each round of play has new zombies appearing on your lawn and local events happening that will affect all players equally, from poisoning of the water supply through something as simple, yet deadly, as your batteries running out of juice. The best part, for me, is knowing that the game is not at all about surviving until the end of the outbreak, it's about outlasting your neighbors. The winner isn't the one who lives, the winner is the one who dies last! It's a brilliantly conceived concept, and in practice it is wonderful to play.

That being said, it's not without its flaws. The rulebook has some vague spots, and these can directly inhibit the initial enjoyment of the game to its fullest. I guess, in short, I can say that almost all of the rules are there in one way or another, but the layout of the rules were a problem for us to some degree and there were a couple rules, especially regarding combat, that left us with having to interpret them on the fly. There are few illustrations, and of the illustrations that are within, they all pretty much go over the same thing: zombie movement. Of all my complaints in the rulebook, this was the number one bitch that everyone had: there were simply not enough example illustrations.

The FAQs on the publisher's website do help with the understanding of the game, but I had to write the publisher to get clarification before actually having a full understanding of the combat. Even now, knowing completely well how to play, there are a few things that we've had to muddle through and rule upon, so when you get this, know that it's going to be a chore to 'get it' the first time you play. That being said, in my judgment and the judgment of all but one the five people that I have played this game with, it is totally worth it.

Before talking about the specific components, I should talk about the art. I, and everyone who I introduced this game to, really loved the art. The cards are especially wonderful, but virtually everything about the art is wonderful. The only dull spot in the entire game is the rulebook, which as I mentioned before, is lacking. There are four main player boards along with 16 yard boards, and I didn't realize it until last night, but the player boards are not all the same so there's a bit of variance when you play again. Then, there's a couple of sheets of cardboard chits, all well illustrated, understandable, and of great quality. There's also eight linen paper sheets, four of which are counters and four of which are double-sided quick reference cards.

Beyond that, the game comes with maybe a hundred cards of varying purpose, 50 or so little glass semispherical beads to use as markers, six dice, and about 120 smallish yellow zombies. These zombies, surprisingly, come in a wide variety of poses, my favorite being the tall, slender chick wearing an '80s style backpack-purse and carrying a dismembered arm. They are smaller than the usual zombies that you'd see in Zombies!!! but I actually like them better because they fit well on the board and the look of them as a whole is much better. I'd like to note, also, that the cards are all made out of that textured, linen, coated card stock, and look and feel brilliant. All of the components are absolutely top-notch, to be sure.

Moving onto gameplay, let's talk about setup. Setting up can take ten minutes or so if you didn't bag up chits by purpose, so make sure to do that if you end up with a copy. To set up, simply give each player a house board, four side yard boards, and a provision tracking card. You can also give up a player aid, but after you've played once it's not really required. Players place five of the glass beads on the five spot on each of their provisions as a starting allotment, and then the game begins.

Gameplay is made up of two parts, with the first part being the stockpiling phase and the second being the actual beginning of the end of the world. During the stockpiling phase, each player will take turns picking an item out of the piles of chits and placing these items in their house. Each house has 30 spaces for items, but many items take up more than one space, so playing Tetris when you were a kid finally is going to pay off. It is ultra-critical to make sure to get the most important items to your survival strategy as quickly as possible, because there simply is not enough to go around.

The design does an exceptional job of making sure that you're always behind the eight ball, even from this stage, because of the deadly nasty choices you'll need to make. Before I get too far ahead, let me tell you why this is so critical. Each item, and I do mean each item, has a definite and necessary purpose, and this cannot be overstated. Allow me to provide some sense of this with a simple item; the portable stove. Getting a stove means that you can feed more people with a limited food supply, but without power, you need gasoline to make it work. But, without gasoline, you can't make supplemental trips to the store. Without a bunch of people, those trips to the store yield less stuff, but the more people you have on staff, the more food and water you'll need to have. Just resign yourself to knowing that the end will come.

Another example is weapon choices. There are shotguns, machetes, crossbows, AK rifles, and swords of varying size. Before you start asking, "Who the hell has a sword? That's not thematic", allow me to provide a personal bit of information: I own at least one of every weapon in this game aside from the crossbow, from the AK rifle to the portable stove. I even own a short sword, long sword, and machete, laser sight, and night vision. So yes, I am prepared for the Zombie Apocalypse, if this game is any judge.

Anyhow, each weapon has its benefit and liability, so choosing weapons is a terribly stressful experience as well. All ranged weapons make noise, which can be mitigated with a silencer, but the best ranged weapons are not usable in the house and can only be fired at outside targets, and while swords make no noise, if you fail to cause a hit in hand-to-hand combat, the attacker takes a wound. It's a maddening sea of choices, and with so many options in such limited quantities, you'll never get exactly what you want.

Pair all of this with the fact that the game scales tremendously well, with rules detailing how many items to yank out of the pool before the game even begins. In a three-player game, for instance, there is only one portable stove, one fridge, and one pantry, and these are some of the most important items in the game because they allow you to multiply your food stores, effectively feeding more people with less food. I'm telling you, this game is just plain hateful with the choices you have to make, and it almost always ends up about taking what's most important to your overall strategy first, knowing you'll be stuck with choosing the lesser of many evils later.

After you're stocked up, the end is nigh and the zombies start appearing. At the beginning of every turn, a player rolls a D6 and the resultant roll value determines where the zombies appear. The yard boards each have the numbers one through six along their periphery, and you place one zombie on each yard in the position of the number rolled. If there's already a zombie there, it moves forward a space, and if there's already one there, they start to spread out along that face of the house.

Now, if there's already zombies galore in that yard, they can start to enter your house, which is a very, very dire happening. After you've resolved the zombie placement, a player will pull one card out of the event deck, and it is virtually guaranteed to be painful. As said above, an event occurs that affects everyone equally, and this can be that the power is cut off, the water supply is tainted, or any of an array of other very bad things. Not only that, but generally, there's additional actions that are required by text along the bottom edge of the card that makes you lose items such as batteries, water, or food. To make matters worse, all of those losses are keyed to how many living souls occupy the house, so the more people you have, the more pain it causes.

After the card has been resolved, it's time to take action. The actions allowed by a player are determined by the amount of people in the house, with each person in the house allowed one action each. The first action allowed is to erect barricades. Each player may first erect barricades, which uses one action per barricade as well as one lumber unit per barricade. The hand saw item allows you to only use one lumber per barricade, and there's eight entry points per house, so it's a strategic assessment to determine where, and when, you wish to exhaust the actions to erect barricades. This doesn't even touch the fact that barricades both block zombies from entering the house for one extra turn when they've overrun a house face, buying you time to react, but they also block players from using the barricaded aperture to attack zombies.

Speaking of killing zombies, let's get to that. If you have remaining actions after barricading the crib, you may start laying waste to the zombies outside your house. To do so, you use one action and one weapon, and you roll the associated dice into the box lid. I'll get to that in a minute. The restrictions on combat are such that you can only use one weapon and accessory combination per action, per turn, so if you have an AK and a silencer, you can't reuse that AK or that silencer in the same turn. Guns also make noise, which attracts another zombie to the side you fired upon, so the best you can hope to do is to kill a zombie in a spot that's problematic for you and hope that the zombie that is attracted to that same side, which is placed using a die roll as normal, appears in a better spot.

The only weapon in the game that has a net zombie loss is the Molotov cocktail, which instantly kills two adjacent zombies, but if any one of those killed is adjacent to your house, you inadvertently start a fire in your house and have to put it out with either two water units or a fire extinguisher, both of which are precious commodities. You don't have to roll for the cocktails and you always kill two zombies, but the downside is that once you've used one, it's gone.

Now let me get into the actual mechanics of combat, because while at first I thought it was a bit of a gimmick, it turns out to be one of the coolest systems I've ever played, especially given the theme. As noted, each weapon has a specific dice value and range, both of which can be modified negatively by distance to target and night warfare, and both of which can be modified positively with laser and night vision scopes. To make a ranged attack, you simply define your target and roll the allotted dice into the box lid, which has a depiction of a zombie in it. Sounds simple, right?

No. It's a tense and absolutely evil affair. If any die lies touching circle that encompasses the zombie's head area, it's an automatic kill. This is NOT easy to do, despite how it sounds. This alone makes for a spicy game, and cries of "Headshot! Hell yeah!" will ensue. But, if you miss the headshot, any die that lands anywhere else on the zombie image is tallied, and if the combined values of all your dice equal six or greater, it's a kill. This, again, is not easy to do. What makes this special is that when you have a handgun, you roll one die and pray to get a headshot; everything feels as if it rests on the roll. Even with an AK that rolls 4 dice by default there are still plenty of misses. It's just a really neat, and sometimes frustrating, mechanic that hearkens back to my days playing Space Fleet. In short, it's very cool and really gets the blood pumping.

To add to the misery of the zombie's encroachment of your suburban domicile, hand-to-hand attacks have more pain involved. You can only attack zombies that you have a path to out of any given window, and if you fail to kill that zombie, you are immediately wounded. Wounds are very easy to reconcile, though, and are deadly. If you choose to use a first aid kit, the person lives. If you choose not to, or are out, that person dies. It's very cut and dry, and losing a person also means losing an action, which makes everything much, much worse, most especially the trips to the stores in town.

Speaking of heading to the town, if you picked up one of the four cars in the game, you can expend one fuel and move any players whom you chose not to have act on your turn into the car and then subsequently off to the side of your board. On the following turn, you choose two cards of your choice, per person that is on the trip, from any combination of the Hospital, grocery, or hardware stores. Each store has different supplies, and the Hospital even has people in it you can rescue and bring back.

The bad news is that each car has a capacity and that capacity determines how many items you can bring back. Further, some cards depict zombies, and you must fight each zombie to the death, up to the amount of people that are in the car. So, if you brought three people and pull four zombies, you only have to fight with three. Sure hope you brought weapons!

Trips to the store aren't quick, and it takes three full turns to make a round trip, which has its upsides and downsides. The downside is that you lose actions for three turns, but the upside is that the people in town are immune from all bad happenings, food use, water use, and other event card problems. Also, if you come home and there's zombies in the driveway on your yard board, you get to run them down, taking a car damage point for each one killed. You can also do this on the way out to the store, I should mention. Each car has a damage rating, and if your car is destroyed on a return trip, while you can fight your way back into the house, you lose all the toys that you brought with you. Finally, if at any time your house becomes overrun and there are no living souls in the house, even if you have plenty in the car, you lose the game.

Once you're through barricading, fighting, or shopping, you are at the end of the turn. Any actions that you reserved or couldn't use are now put to use, and this is where the really nasty stuff comes in. You get to spend actions causing pain to your neighbors! Perhaps they should've returned that leaf blower when they said they would, eh? You may pick an opponent and pick a yard, and then roll a die to determine where that zombie appears, and the "zombie-bomb" is complete. I find it incredibly fun to wait until the turn a player leaves for the store, then forfeit as many actions as you dare to inundate their lovely home with the freshly reanimated dead. Not only can you get a quick win against an underprepared player, you can cause them to lose their ill-gotten store wares by, if you're lucky, blocking their driveway and causing their car to explode in a fiery ball of wreckage.

The endgame comes when all but one player has lost all of their people. This has happened to us right at about two and a half hours for three players, but we play a bit slow so that's to be expected. With two, it played out in an hour and twenty, but that was because we were seriously getting lucky with rolls and event distributions. All in all, you can expect that you may survive for about two hours against the zombie horde.

Now, I need to mention that this game is also playable as a solo experience, and while you lose out on the bombarding of your opponents with zombies, it is an amazingly difficult and fun experience to play by yourself. As a rule, I never, ever play solo, but this game really had me wanting to give it a shot. All the rules are, essentially, the same, but you get to choose whatever you want from the entire item pool, and instead of outlasting your friends, who aren't playing, you have to outlast the event deck.

Let me be the first to say that I don't see that happening often.  It's breathtakingly tense, and I even named my little people in the house. I could see proxying some miniatures in there, too, just to make you identify with the doomed souls a little more. In short, the solo game is really a ton of fun, but I did miss the fuckery of dropping zombies on my friends at the worst possible time.

In conclusion, all but one person liked this game quite a bit when I polled them, and two of them specifically asked to play again in the near future. It has been a lot of fun to play, and with the one exception of the rulebook being less than easy to understand, this is a truly fun, brilliant little game with a completely new design that has everything you like about fighting zombies with the lovely inclusion of a survivalist aspect.

Reasons This Game Should Survive The Apocalypse:
-The concept of preparing for the end, then playing it out, is epic
-Every single turn is absolutely meaningful, and every action is important
-Combat is no joke. I've rarely felt such tense nervousness before a die roll
-The art is great and the overall adherence to the theme is awesome
-Even with four players the downtime between turns is short
-It is SO satisfying to screw over your opponents by airdropping zombies on them

What Makes Me Want To Throw This To The Ghouls:
-The rulebook wasn't written very well, and the FAQ barely fills the gaps
-It would've been nice to have the "person" chits have names and/or faces on them

I went into this with a high expectation because of the concept involved, and I wasn't disappointed...much. Were it not for the rulebook being hard to grasp and poorly laid out, this would've been a solid "4 out of 5 star" game. As a buyer, I had to read the rules repeatedly, then refer back to the rules repeatedly, then check the FAQ, then contact the publisher, and all of that led to a little frustration. That being said, once I got my answers and played 2 more times, I am fully confident that this game is one hell of a good time. I know this kind of game isn't going to be for everyone, but for those who like resource management aspects of euros and good, old fashioned dicefest combat and randomness, this game is a winner. In fact, I can't wait until Saturday when I get to play it again.

3.875/5 Stars

Take a looksee at what the end of the world looks like here:

Read the rules here...

...and then read the FAQ here:

I will be creating a nifty little quick-reference guide at some point, so keep your eyes open on Boardgamegeek and here at the Circus if you're interested. Until then, here's how the game played out last Friday...
We started out thinking that we were SO ready...

...then we realized we had erred. Big time. None of us were prepared.

Finally, near the end, we realized that we were all getting overrun.


binabug said...

OMG this looks like so much fun

G said...

Nice review, thanks!

Actually, if you only have written the first paragraph it would be worth reading. :-)